The first thing to note about this book is its length. It’s short. It’s very short. The print version is 52 pages, but when you take out the contents, the appendix notes (which consist of a series of short asides which could have been included in the main text) and the further resources page, it’s closer to 40. I read it in 45 minutes, and that’s including the time I took to make notes as I went.
And that’s a shame, because Downie’s overall approach is a winning one. He doesn’t attempt to shame people out of drinking forever, nor examine the reasons why one should or shouldn’t drink (more on this later); his is a simple and relatively compelling suggestion; why not give up drinking, just for a while, and see what happens?
For how long? Well, any time is great, but as he says, “The greater the time you take off the drink, the more likely you are to be able to make an informed decision about whether your life is better off the drink than not”.
His assumption, of course, is that life will be better. Downie himself is three years sober, an achievement which is all the greater for his history as a ‘beer expert’ working in a high-pressure law firm. And while his approach suggests a temporary experiment, he does allude to the fact that going back to drinking is probably not a hot idea; chances are, he says, that if you could successfully moderate, you wouldn’t have been getting drunk often enough to have picked up the book in the first place.
The middle of his book is dedicated to a few practical tips on how to get through early sobriety, my favourite of which talks about creating a Sliding Doors moment; the first time you go out with friends and don’t join them in imbibing, make sure you do something the next morning that you could never have done with a hangover. Exercise and healthy eating, basically, is his mantra, and he pushes the point home a few times. I empathised with his frustration when he was checking an old bottle of wine for cooking and couldn’t sip it to check that it hadn’t turned; I’ve done that as well, and then felt frustration at the sheer arbitrariness of it; I can’t taste this liquid but I can taste this one. It’s always good to hear another story of early sobriety, even just to know that grumpiness and lethargy are the norm in the first weeks.
All of the above points, though, could have been much more powerful with a few more words. Downie talks about the fact that becoming a ‘Clear Thinker’, the term he uses for people living sober, can allow one to effect significant change in one’s life. He himself, he explains, withdrew from the rat race, resigned his partnership at a law firm and lives in a coastal town writing children’s books. Which sounds idyllic, but is missing a lot of detail. Did he decide that the work environment was leading to his drinking and hope that a geographic move would help? Did removing the alcohol help him see that it was masking other problems? He doesn’t say, leaving an equation which is missing some of its variables. Give up alcohol -> Think more clearly -> ???? -> Benefit! The book is not a memoir, of course, but I’d have found the conclusion a little more compelling if he’d shown his workings.
In fact, there were several places in the book where I thought that Downie was on the verge of a personal epiphany and we were about to get into the meat of the issue. He talks about his own physical withdrawal symptoms, which comprised moodiness, headaches, light-headedness, and an episode where he found himself ‘scratching [my] arms, like a recovering addict, but surely that had nothing to do with it…’, he alludes to the ‘very slippery slope’ that drinking again can entail, and indeed recounts a previous experiment where he tried to quit, drank a champagne toast after eight weeks, and ‘slid back into old habits’ for a further eight years. But if his decision to stay sober had anything to do with a realisation that he had some level of dependency, he doesn’t say so. Which is, of course, his prerogative; perhaps he does not believe this. And I think that for Downie, avoiding labels is an important part of what he’s saying – that anyone can benefit from giving up drinking, not just people with ‘a problem’.
And that, whilst it is the main strength of the book, is related to its main weakness.
I had a huge issue with his treatment of alcoholism. Downie draws a bright, and frankly irresponsible, line between ‘people who could benefit from cutting down’ and ‘alcoholics’. His assumption appears to be that if you don’t experience ‘the shakes’, you’re not an alcoholic, and if you are, you need medical supervision or you’ll be, as he says breezily, ‘in a world of pain’. Right at the start of the book he says this:
if you are an alcoholic then please do me a favour and return this book. Real alcoholics can run into real trouble stopping drinking, even for a limited period. See your doctor. This book is for ‘normal drinkers’.
All of which ignores the actual diagnostic criteria for alcoholism, which may include but do not require any physical withdrawal symptoms to be present. And the reason this is so frustrating – it comes up several times – is that people in early- or mid-stage alcoholism usually don’t need medical supervision to withdraw from alcohol. Downie’s bright line both discourages people who identify as alcoholic from trying to quit and perpetuates the myth that somebody not experiencing delirium tremens or who wants to drink alone ‘like some lost souls’ is not an alcoholic; the classic lie that allows so many of us to drink well past the point where the warning bells should have sounded. If you write a book to help people who are experiencing difficulty with alcohol, you cannot marginalise some of those people. Somebody who is drinking regularly enough to pick up a book shouldn’t be told to put it back down.
Downie has an upbeat, casual approach to the issue of alcohol. For people who aren’t ready, or don’t feel it necessary, to confront the idea of stopping forever, the ‘Between Drinks’ concept is a compelling one. No pressure, no labels, just stop for a while and see what happens. In the Australian culture of casual drinks and mateship, Downie might just break through defences which go up every time the ‘A’ word is mentioned. Between Drinks is a valuable addition to an often dry collection of self help books on the subject, and getting through it is a breeze. If you’re looking for something simple, light and approachable, give it a try.